At 99, the Painter Richard Mayhew Is Still Upending Expectations

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Painter Richard Mayhew, who recently turned 99, has lived through more swaths of this country’s history than anyone you’re about to meet.

Sitting at a patio table outside a cedar-thatched suburban house in Soquel, near Santa Cruz, Mayhew leaned back in his chair and reflected on his long life.

“I drove across the United States six times,” he said. “From New York to San Francisco, 3 overs, 3 backs. I was always looking for it.”

In terms of reference material, all Mayhew needs now is a lifetime of searching. “You can hear the whole neighborhood,” his wife Rosemary told me, as he paints in the garage attached to the house while listening to loud jazz. (Mayhew is deaf.) Since the 1950s, Mayhew has painted landscapes with an increasingly unnatural, sometimes acidic palette that both stings his eyes and soothes him.

In 2021, an entire room at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will be dedicated to Mayhew’s paintings, six of which were donated by avid patron and collector Pamela Joyner. Despite Mayhew’s long career, many visitors encountered him there for the first time.

Exhibition of Mayhew paintings, “natural order” is currently on display at Venus over Manhattan, marking the beginning of a new space the gallery has opened on Great Jones Street. In September, a survey of his work will be exhibited at the Sonoma Valley Museum in Sonoma, California.

But calling this delayed focus Rediscovery ignores his successes throughout his career. His work has been steadily exhibited in New York galleries since the 1950s, including his venerable Midtown gallery and, more recently, his ACA gallery, which continues to represent him. In 1970 he was elected to the National Academy of Design.

Mayhew is of mixed African American and Native American descent, with a stocky build, a salt-and-pepper goatee, and heavily-lidded eyes. His speech is interrupted by obsessive laughter. Considering his age, his energy and ability to recall details are amazing.

In 1942, he became one of the first black cadets to be accepted into the United States Marine Corps. The normally grueling training process was particularly grueling for black cadets, he remembers. “They didn’t want you to succeed,” he said. In 1963, he helped found the African-American art collective Spiral. The group included figures such as Romea Bearden and Norman Lewis, essentially discussing the possibilities of black aesthetics.

Mayhew grew up in a time when America was torn apart by racism. He was born near Amityville on the South Shore of Long Island. “It’s strange, but Amityville wasn’t as segregated as other towns at the time,” he said.

His mother, whom he called a “flashy city girl,” often disappeared during long trips to Manhattan. (His “bohemian” father, who was a house painter and also ran a limousine company, preferred to stay at home.) He was, for the most part, raised by his sinnecock grandmother, who was Taught him about indigenous traditions and took us to a powwow.

For Mayhew, his Native American identity is as important, if not more important, than his African American identity. (He comments that the latter often trumps the former in how others perceive him.) What he inherited from his indigenous ancestors was not a tradition of craftsmanship, but an “inventive spirit.” , he says.

Mayhew Exhibition at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art The title is “Inner Terrain”. When he paints, he describes himself as being in a trance. He claims that his paintings are not landscapes but “mindscapes”, places that are only imagined or remembered. Some are titled after specific locations (“Monterey Bay” and “Montauk”), but Mayhew said they do so “just to give them an identity.” You might as well call it “Wednesday,” he said, showing me a painting with the very title on the garage studio easel.

In Mayhew’s hazy, peaceful landscape, you’re tempted to find hidden echoes of the country’s history of slavery and its relationship with the land of black and brown workers. In past titles, he mentioned “40 acres and a mule” promised as reparations to freed slaves during Reconstruction. In one interview, he said he visited a former plantation in Louisiana and pondered the dark secrets of the landscape.

But he said he devoted himself simply to color, optics, and illusion. Like the tonalist painters of the late 19th century (George Innes was particularly influential), he uses color to evoke space, but lets the background rise forward and the foreground recede. I have a perverted taste.

“When I was studying in Florence, I learned that the mind cannot know what the eye sees,” he said. In 1960 Mayhew moved to Italy with his first wife Dorothy and her children Ina and Scott to study at the Accademia di Bel Arti in Florence. His best friend at the time was Nelson Shanks A classical realist portrait painter, he traveled with him to museums throughout Europe.

During his stay, he said, he learned that creative sensibility “has nothing to do with ethnicity or a particular culture.” He argues that the members of Spiral were really concerned with “creative consciousness” (a term he often uses) beyond race-related issues.

Mayhew became known as a radical teacher who promoted an interdisciplinary curriculum that some arts faculties were not prepared for. While teaching at Sonoma State University in the 1970s, he worked with students to create giant plastic bubbles inflated with a fan in a box, in which dancers and musicians were invited to perform, as well as scientists. and measured the reverberation of the surface, and conducted classes.

Mayhew’s legacy continues to inspire young artists of color today. 38 year old African American painter kajalLiving near Mayhew in Santa Cruz, he will curate an exhibition in Sonoma with Shelby Graham. He first met Mayhew in high school, through a security guard who noticed his art. Since then, Kadjar has become something of an acolyte. “I came at a time when artists felt very strongly motivated to push politics and their notions of collective identity,” he says. “I think it’s refreshing that his work isn’t like that.”

His wife, Rosemary, said he tends not to think too much about the hardships he has endured and the discrimination he has faced. She speculates that this is a form of self-defense. “No trouble!” he protested to her recently, pointing out the gallery’s willingness to display her own work.

“we bottom It’s a struggle,” said Ina, Mayhew’s daughter and a film and television production designer. “There were always financial problems, we moved a lot, and he taught at several schools. He had a gallery, but we made a living selling his paintings. She said some collectors didn’t even know Mayhew wasn’t white. “When he was admitted to the National Academy of Design, they didn’t know he was black until he showed up.”

There are many artists of color who have not only had to think outside the box, but have had to invent entirely new ones for themselves. Despite seemingly traditional subject matter, there is no artist like Richard Mayhew. As Rosemary puts it, “I think Rick realized what he had to do to survive.”

Richard Mayhew: Natural Order

Until June 17th, Venus over Manhattan, 39 Great Jones Street, NoHo. Venus Over Manhattan.com.

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